Cuenca, Ecuador

After a bleary drunken overnight border crossing (I wouldn’t advise it), we arrived in cold, beautiful, colonial Cuenca. Moving from weeks of beach-bumming and jungle to a chilly high-altitude city was a real shock to the skin, as we rediscovered all of our warm clothing to cover our peeling sunburn!

There’s an ongoing battle in Ecuador between Cuenca folk and Quito dwellers about which city is prettier, and you can really see why. My camera barely left my hand in our few days there, with stunning cobbled streets, plazas, blue-topped cathedrals and endless crumbling white colonial buildings. 

We spent our first few days there vegetating and enjoying the delights of being back in a proper city (i.e. mainly eating delicious international food… pizzas and CURRY obviously!), trying local bakery goods, snuggling up during freezing cold evenings watching films on our cable TV (including Field of Dreams… what the FUCK is that film all about?!), and doing lots of strolling around town.

Lots of the museums there seem to be perma-closed (or with really irregular opening hours) so we did lots of walking along rivers and attempting (but failing!) to get into museums. However, in our attempts we did come across some cool Inka grounds, a free wildlife centre, a weird gothic/S&M art gallery, a panama hat factory and lots of cathedrals. So not bad sightseeing all in all!

We fuelled all the walking by diving head-first into some local food options, including our first ‘llapingachos’ (potato pancakes) and ‘locro de papa’ (hearty potato soup with avocado and white cheese). So far, so good!

We also did one of our most DISASTROUS hikes to date, in Parque Nacional Cajas, half an hour out of town. Tempted in by its wild, misty beauty, the park is unlike others we’d found in South America. Freezing cold with dramatic panoramas of dark lagoons, green brushes, marshland and eery thick fog, the park has an ethereal beauty to it. BUT, that’s before you try and start trekking the goddamn thing.

You see, the thing is, because of the altitude and the foggy microclimate, as well as being cold and misty, it’s also SUPER muddy and often wet. Although it didn’t rain much for us, we essentially spent 4 hours hobbling around the shortest route, trying not to fall in the mud. Unsuccessfully. SO MUCH MUD. So much wet, cold, liquid mud. To the point where just climbing around the edges of the lagunas became a high-concentration, low speed, slippery nightmare task. We saw another couple turn back within the first half hour, but we trekked on with stupid blind determination!

Without going into too much detail, low points included: having to climb down steep muddy forests clinging desperately onto trees, getting lost and nearly walking through an ice cold stream unnecessarily (they’re not so keen on the signposts in Ecuador!); cutting my hand open on a spiky plant (ALL THE PLANTS HURT); and finally, unceremoniously falling into a mud puddle that was neck-deep, thankfully part-saved by Sam, so I just got mud all down ONE SIDE of my body. It was so stressful, I cried like a little girl.

One silver lining of the park (alongside the cool misty lakes) were the cool wild flowers that grow there that look like something out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory…!

Despite all of the toughness, we got a kind of sick satisfaction from completing such a nasty trek, and after a bleak rainy lunch on some rocks, we managed to find a nice warm local bus back into town, where a kind businessman let me sit next to him despite all of my mud, and gave me lots of warm sympathetic looks. The locals must know what an unforgiving place the park is!

Anyhoo, national park aside, Cuenca was a beautiful first location to start Ecuador with, and I’d whole-heartedly recommend a few days in the city. Everyone’s super friendly, there’s great food, museums, markets, and a really nice, safe vibe.

Next up, we headed to backpacker favourite, Banos…